Sounds of a crackling campfire permeate the peaceful night air in the opening moments of Murk Rider’s debut full-length Exile of Shadows. Shortly thereafter, gentle acoustic guitar joins the comforting snaps and sputters. But this is no foreshadowing for a sprightly pass-the-mallow-style campfire sing-along. The addition of a creaking rope and unfamiliar bird cries contribute to generating a feeling of unease. The way Murk Rider draws upon sounds of the natural world to conjure a particular aesthetic makes it impossible to not be reminded of the haunting but soothing loon calls and melancholic folk instrumentation that start off Panopticon’s Autumn Eternal and precede a deluge of pummeling black metal. Exile of Shadows is not a product of the hills of Kentucky nor the rural forests of Minnesota, however. Murk Rider’s core duo, operating under the aliases URSUS and STRIX, saw Exile of Shadows through its near decade-long gestation in The Golden State of California.
Despite the almost comical number of setbacks Murk Rider faced over the course of the album’s lengthy development, including the destruction of the near-completed album files and a changing lineup, the duo persevered to produce a debut of epic proportions. Their journey toward sobriety coupled with their obsession with the hero’s journey as told through Joseph Campbell’s famed book The Hero with a Thousand Faces both kept their noses to the grindstone and provided inspiration for their particular strain of doomy atmospheric black metal. Murk Rider’s intent with Exile of Shadows is to take their listeners along with them on an intense spiritual journey of healing and growth. This motive aligns with Brian Eno’s school of thought around the importance of surrender as it relates to music. The ambient pioneer has called attention to the fact that “one of the things art offers you is the chance to surrender, the chance to not be in control any longer,” for “that’s the reason we enjoy sex, drugs, art, and religion . . . they’re all forms of transcendence through surrender.” When I discovered the parallels between Eno’s desire to create music during which you can let go and be carried along on a journey and Exile of Shadows, an album designed to kindle a transformative experience, I couldn’t wait to dig in.
Exile of Shadows brings you on a 90s-style black metal journey complete with brutish shrieks, blazing tremolo picking, and clamorous drums. The album veers into doom, speed, and classic heavy metal territories separated by atmospheric sounds of the natural world. Come hither fans of Panopticon, Agalloch, and Winterfylleth. At over 80 minutes in length and composed of a mere three tracks, however, Exile of Shadows is not for the impatient listener. This album takes time to heat up. The creative and thoughtful effort Murk Rider put forth into their debut is most clearly evident on the last two tracks “Journey” and “Return.” Eleven minutes into “Journey,” Myrkur-style traditional folk vocals glide in, and I couldn’t help but feel as though I were in Greek hero Odysseus’s shoes when he was detained on nymph Calypso’s island. The end of the journey is met with a surprise brass arrangement complete with soaring trumpet calls. On “Return,” easily my favorite track on the album, sounds of a whirling windstorm turn into mind-numbing guitar arpeggios and weightlessness-inducing space synth work reminiscent of Jean-Michel Jarre or Tangerine Dream. A prayer reading fading into sounds of a slow-burning fire brings the album full circle.
Despite the long and arduous process Murk Rider endured to deliver their debut, Exile of Shadows remains far from a perfect release. The most obvious flaw is the album’s long-windedness. On more than one occasion, I was left wondering when the album would end. For those hesitant to take the plunge, I suggest leaving out the first track completely for a more digestible introduction. The inflated duration, combined with the inconsistent production quality throughout the album, forced me to rate this album lower than I would have liked.
Exile of Shadows (much like Panopticon’s entire discography or Wilderun’s Sleep at the Edge of the Earth) is an example of introspective ambient folk interludes done right. Does that justify the bloated 80+ minute album runtime? I’m not wholly convinced. Still, I am appreciative of the opportunity to surrender and embark on Murk Rider’s first journey. Murk Rider live in the shadows no more, and I look forward to the next time the boys are back in town.1